Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 13, 2019

The Yield, by Tara June Winch

I liked this absorbing book so much, as soon as I’d finished it, I read it all over again. There is so much to discover within its pages!

The Yield is the long-awaited second novel of Wiradjuri woman Tara June Winch who transfixed the Australian literary scene with her first novel Swallow the Air in 2006 (see my review) and followed that up in 2016 with an impressive short story collection called After the Carnage (see my review). That collection had an international perspective (Winch now lives and works in France), but The Yield is unmistakeably Australian.

This is the blurb:

Knowing that he will soon die, Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi takes pen to paper. His life has been spent on the banks of the Murrumby River at Prosperous House, on Massacre Plains. Albert is determined to pass on the language of his people and everything that was ever remembered. He finds the words on the wind.

August Gondiwindi has been living on the other side of the world for ten years when she learns of her grandfather’s death. She returns home for his burial, wracked with grief and burdened with all she tried to leave behind. Her homecoming is bittersweet as she confronts the love of her kin and news that Prosperous is to be repossessed by a mining company. Determined to make amends she endeavours to save their land – a quest that leads her to the voice of her grandfather and into the past, the stories of her people, the secrets of the river.

The central motif that threads all through is the missing:  missing people; missing history; missing documentation; a missing dictionary, missing artefacts and other memorabilia; and a missing language.  But the people who are missing are not from the Stolen Generations; they are missing because of dysfunctional modern life, which is a consequence not just of the Stolen Generations but also because of the other things that are missing in their lives: safety and protection; a secure family life; respect and fairness, and the opportunity to thrive and prosper without having to leave their community.  Their stories are told through three distinctive narratives: August Gondiwindi in the present day; Reverend Greenleaf’s anguished letters to the British Society of Ethnography in 1915; and Poppy Gondiwindi’s missing dictionary.  While the reader knows the content of the letters and the diary, August does not, which gives the novel its narrative tension because she needs that information to stave off the looming second dispossession.

Reverend Greenleaf is the German missionary who set up the Prosperous mission.  Winch charts both his paternalistic ambitions, and the violence he witnesses against the Indigenous people by frontier townsfolk.  Writing in 1915, he has fallen from grace, so to speak, from being a missionary whose role commands respect even from people who don’t like his (paternalistic) protection of the Wiradjuri, to being an outsider himself, a victim of anti-German sentiment as an enemy alien during WW1.

Poppy’s dictionary, which is his attempt to rescue his endangered language Wiradjuri, may not sound like an engaging way of storytelling.  But it is, and the best way I can explain how it works is with an example.  Each week in my French class, we talk about something we’ve done during the week, and in one of my accounts I mentioned Bunnings.  ‘What is Bunnings?’ asked our recently arrived French teacher.  ‘A hardware store’, someone answered.  But that’s not enough to explain how Bunnings is part of the cultural fabric of suburban Melbourne, like Myer is to the CBD.  So we explained how it’s a chain of mega-stores, about its sausage sizzles and DIY classes, and how families and DIY aficionados jostle with tradies in the aisles. (Update 14/7/19, I’ve just thought of this: there is also Bunnings’ more dubious history of ‘dispossessing’ family owned hardware stores.  The chain’s huge footprint simply obliterated any local competition by ruthlessly undercutting prices, making it impossible for competitors to survive).

There are so many elegant examples of this expansion of the idea of a dictionary, that it’s hard to choose.  Poppy begins the book like this:

I was born on Ngurambang — can you hear it? — Ngu-ram-bang.  If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words.  Every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language — because that is the way to all time, to time travel! You can go all the way back.  (p.1)

But on page 33, we learn how to say

where is your country? — dhaganhu ngurambang The question is not really about a place on a map. When our people say Where is your country? they are asking something deeper.  Who is your family? Who are you related to?  Are we related? (p.34)

On page 103, we learn not just the Wiradjuri word for the Southern Cross, but how the children learned:

star constellation the Southern Cross — gibirrgan Sometimes only the women would come and collect me and we’d go and sit by the fire at the riverbank.  They taught me how to count up to a thousand by counting the stars.  First we’d start at the less bright ones, I’d count along my toes, count with each joint in my legs, then the brighter, those I’d count with my arms, elbows, fingers, then the brightest with my face, tap tap tap on my nose, eyes, chin and ear all night.  The brightest stars were gibirrgan — the constellation of the Southern Cross, which features on this country’s flag — it’s made of five bright stars almost in a cross shape.  The woman told me the story of gibirrgan once, and they’d begin the story with ‘When the world was young.’

Poppy’s dictionary isn’t just an old man’s memories.  It’s from this diary that we deduce what happened to Jedda, and we learn that his wife Elsie was no pushover.

rib — dharrar In the Book of Genesis  2:18-22 it says that woman was made from man’s rib.  Elsie said, ‘That’s a load of b—s—. ‘  I laughed. […] Anytime we argued in our marriage, she’d scream and point to her side, ‘I’m not your dharrar!  You want a dharrar, get to the butcher!’ It’s a good insult that one, I hope we taught the girls that — not to be anyone’s rib. (p.106)

Names are significant in this novel: beyond the obvious allusions in the (fictional) place names of the Prosperous Mission and Massacre Plains, and the droll barb behind the Rinepalm Mining Company, there are also significances in the names of people.  Rev Greenleaf who anglicised his German name is painfully naïve; August’s missing sister Jedda has the name of a 1955 film whose plot involves taboos (and is indirectly referenced in Poppy’s dictionary entry for ngurrungarra (which means lust after, passionate).  August herself is anything but venerable and eminent. She has been away in London for a decade, but has returned more painfully confused and disorientated than ever.  She has been missing to her family; but although she is physically present in their lives, she is still psychologically absent.

‘Maybe I just feel weird, I don’t know.  Stuff changes.  I feel as I’m just floating through life or something.  Like my whole life I haven’t really been me.’ (p. 143)

She also realises that her absence has led to further losses:

She’d never heard Poppy talk politics before, but he’d been talking about Native Title with Joey; it was as if she’d missed out on a version of him.’ (p.143)

(I felt exactly the same way when I met professional colleagues of my father at his funeral.  A different version of someone I thought I knew intimately).

The significance of the brolgas on the cover?  It’s an inspired choice by designer Adam Laszczuk. Poppy’s dictionary mentions many birds, sometimes telling their creation story, and other times explaining their behaviour and relating it to the behaviour of humans (e.g. the aggressive attacks by plovers and magpies).  But at Poppy’s smoking ceremony it is a lone brolga that holds them all transfixed:

 [August] spied the lone bird at the edge of the dam, dancing, as did her nana, who stopped moving when she noticed. It was as if the bird were coming towards the fire.  Everyone else was looking too.

It was a brolga.

A few family members pointed in the direction of the dam where the red bonnet of the brolga rose and fell, and its white and blue-grey feathers opened and collapsed. At the edge of the water, with its stick-thin, sinewy legs and dipping knees, it danced.  It flapped its wings, showing its black underside.  When it bowed its head August thought she could see its yellow eye.  It had a trumpet call, its caw rising, rising.  Then its beak dipped right down to the ground — and up, up its wings went, the long body of he bird rose, its legs cycling in the air before it fell again.  As the brolga hit the ground, a wing, then the other, whooshed into the smoke blowing in the field.  One leg up, and then the other leg joined so that the brolga was airborne for a moment, and then as its body, atoms, molecules joined the ground its head rose up with the billow of dust, rising.  Over and over, the brolga repeated the dance.  There was music.  Everyone was still, watching — seeing suddenly not the freedom of the bird, but its belonging.  (p.163)

The sound track on this video is annoying, but the video is the best of those I could find:

I’ll conclude with Poppy’s definition of murru:

marks or tracks, impressions of passing objects — murru This is the tracks the snakes, the goanna, the birds and us make as we crisscross the world.  We all leave murru behind, so leave a gentle one. (p.128)

The Yield is a wonderful book.  Highly recommended.

Author: Tara June Winch, A Wiradjuri woman who now lives in France
Title: The Yield
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 342 pages
ISBN: 9780143785750
Review copy courtesy of Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond The Yield, and good bookshops everywhere.

 


Responses

  1. Your work is done: it’s now on my list ;-)

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  2. I will read this later. I am so sorry that I missed a conversation event with her – that I had paid for – last Sunday, but my Mum’s 90th birthday and all the family comings and goings defeated me in the end. Such a shame.

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    • Yes, I’d love to hear her too. I don’t think she’s got a gig at the MWF which is a bit strange…

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  3. […] The Yield, see my ANZ LitLovers review […]

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  4. Hi Everyone,

    I recently watched the Wheeler Centre’s Double-Booked Club program featuring Aboriginal authors Tony Birch and Tara June Winch. The authors read from their new novels. They were interviewed by Aboriginal writer Claire G. Coleman.

    The storyline of The Yield is timely and relevant. The linguistic project of preserving indigenous languages in Australia has been promoted through media programs and platforms such as the radio program, Awaye. The character Poppy embarks on this project as a means of preserving tradition and ancestry. I agree with you Lisa that the character August not knowing the language and content of the letters and diaries adds narrative tension to the novel. I also find it interesting that Winch including a narrative section by the German missionary, Reverend Greenleaf, which gives readers insight on how a colonial figure (religion and nationhood) perceiving the aborigines and their lifestyle, language, and customs. I’m sure Winch puts a contemporary spin on the colonial text on indigenous people by inscribing Aboriginal population’s thoughts of and actions toward Reverend Greenleaf which also adds narrative tension.

    August’s narrative propels the importance of reclaiming ancestry and traditional knowledge which will inform her social justice work in saving Prosperous House.

    Thank you, Lisa, for another insightful book review.

    Sonia

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  5. This sounds like a real treasure of a book. Wonderful review and choice of quotes to give a flavour and the brolgas are delightful!

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    • Yes, they are!
      But *chuckle* you wouldn’t be saying the same thing if I’d posted a video of magpies swooping on unsuspecting heads!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Then I’d be sharing an anecdote of my own of how to distract them while on a cross country run. Funny we have magpies here but they’re nowhere near as aggressive, they’re almost playful, I’ve seen them teasing a cat in a tree outside, luring it along the branch and then pecking it on the butt!

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  6. […] talks to Claire Nichols about her new book, The yield (reviewed by Lisa/ANZlitLovers), and also reads from the book. In the book, the character Albert Gondiwindi is writing a […]

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  7. […] last month or two: a superb new novel called The Yield by Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch (which I reviewed during Indigenous Literature Week which I host every year), and Invented Lives by Andrea Goldsmith, […]

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